Vince Carter’s greatness, impact still unfairly misunderstood

Michael Grange and Alvin Williams put Michael Jordan and Vince Carter's best dunks head-to-head, choosing who overall had the best dunks.

The COVID-19 era will likely go down as the age of nostalgia, assuming we ever get removed enough from it to look back on it.

Let’s hope.

For sports fans, that has meant taking our eyes off the present and the future while revisiting the past with a fresh gaze.

The hottest sports property on television right now has been The Last Dance, a documentary where we get to reflect on a number of things, among them that Michael Jordan – the sleekest, most aerodynamic athlete of my lifetime – has a comfy looking pot belly.

Jordan flew, and so does time, his grandpa pouch tells us.

We live in a moment of all-time teams, all-time players, plays of all time and players ahead of their time.

And we debate this in real time on Twitter and given the times, it doesn’t feel like time being wasted, but the right time to relitigate debates typically best left for closing time.

It’s in this spirit we turn to Vince Carter, the only athlete in Toronto sports history that manages to be both a historical touchstone and an of-the-moment lightning rod.

My friend and colleague Paul Bromby – a senior producer at Sportsnet – put his finger in the socket just on Wednesday because (we can only assume) he had nothing better to do which makes him like everyone not tabbed an essential worker.

Bomber knows his hoops. He helped win a national championship at St. Mary’s in 1999, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and Carter was giving signs he might be the ‘next Jordan’ – a crown that was tossed around all too easily back then and which unfairly burdened a number of careers through unfair expectations.

Paul’s question – posed by way of a Twitter poll — was simple sounding enough: Did Vince Carter reach his potential?

The results? Out of 1297 votes, 74.5 per cent said he fell short.

I disagree. A man who played 22 seasons – more than any player in NBA history — and ranks 19th on the all-time scoring list did not fail to reach his potential. This is not a case where the sample size isn’t big enough.

If anything, despite all evidence, we failed to properly understand what his potential was. We got dazzled by the dunks and missed some of the details.

First, the case that he did fall short which – to save everyone a lot of time – basically boils down to this:

He had one season that was as good as any other great player in NBA history. That he was only fleetingly able to play at that level again suggests that his other 21 seasons weren’t the true measure of the man or the player.

I guess that makes sense?

No, just kidding. It makes no sense. But hey, it was a hell of a year.

To review: After bursting onto the national scene in his lockout-shortened rookie season (1998) with a flurry of incredible dunks, Carter built on it during the 1999-00 season (when he won the dunk contest and helped the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time) and then turned in a masterpiece in his third year at age 24.

The box score numbers in 2000-01 were crazy: 27.6 points a game, with 5.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks. He shot 40.8 per cent from three on 5.3 attempts a game before high-volume three-point shooting was properly valued. Carter is the only player in NBA history to hit those marks in the first three years of his career (all statistics via Basketball Reference).

Only nine other players have ever averaged at least 27 points a game in one of their first three full seasons and scored at least that much in Year 3, and everyone one of them is in the Hall of Fame or headed there, except for Mark Aguirre, a three-time all-star and two-time NBA champion who has a case.

The more advanced stats tell a similar story.

Only nine other players have ever posted a season with a BPM (Box score plus/minus) better than plus-7.0 and a PER (player efficiency rating) over 25, as Carter did.

Understandably, putting up a year like that at 24 years old raises expectations, and it wasn’t like he didn’t back it up. Carter was cruising along at 25-5-5 before knee problems ended his season early in 2001-02 and limited him to 43 games in 2002-03.

He rallied after being traded to New Jersey in 2005-06 (we’ll get to that) as the first 57 games he played with Jason Kidd — the best teammate Carter ever had in his prime – were every bit as impressive as his magical third year as he scored 27.5 points, grabbed 5.9 rebounds and dished for 4.7 assists as a Net and guided them to the playoffs after a sluggish start.

But here’s the thing: Carter was already 29 and in his seventh season when he was lighting it up with the Nets. His days of putting up MVP-type numbers were behind him because they are for almost everyone who has ever pulled on shoes.

The only players who produced at that level Carter did at age 24 (27-5-5 with a WS/48 of .205) at 29 and older are the elite of the elite, the best-ever club: Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Larry Bird, Karl Malone and James Harden — and only Bird and Jordan did it more than once, though you figure Harden might join them.

So, tell me again what standard is Carter being judged by?

By the way, a snapshot of Carter’s career at that point was pretty impressive, especially if you consider what a difficult set of circumstances he fell into in his last couple of years in Toronto.

In his first four years, anyone would have to agree, he far exceeded any expectations anyone had for him as the fifth pick in a deep 1998 draft. At that point only he led his draft class in scoring and trailed Dirk Nowitzki by a fraction in WinShares (36.8-to-36.7).

Carter was a rocket ship.

His fifth season (43 games) was a write-off, due to injury and in his sixth – and this is where you can judge whether he deserves some leeway or not – Carter somehow averaged 22 points and five assists a game for a 33-win team that averaged 85.4 (not a typo) points a game.

So, four excellent seasons, one injury-plagued one and another as a racehorse dutifully pulling a plow through a dusty, dry field.

Things get tricky here, and it’s here where Carter’s reputation gets smacked around so routinely by Raptors fans who can’t forgive two regrettable months.

The only true black mark on Carter’s resume is the first 20 games of that season when he was accused of mailing it in to force a trade, his 15.9 points a game on 41 per cent shooting making a convincing argument.

It’s really this quarter season that carries so much weight when character-driven questions like ‘did he reach his potential’ get tossed around. The same way those two injury-riddled years in the heart of his prime contribute to the idea that he was somehow not durable or a gamer or somehow missing a critical superstar gene.

The facts are different, of course.

That he played 38 minutes a game in Year 2 to Year 6 in Toronto and played 374 out of a possible 385 games in New Jersey – again while playing 38 minutes a game – and then went on to play 11 more seasons says a lot more about perceptions of his durability than problems he had briefly and early in his career.

The contrast between what he did in Toronto that year and how he performed in New Jersey after the trade – he played 57 games as well as he ever had – still makes Raptors fans mad, but no one else really cares. Superstars have their moments – Kobe Bryant refusing to shoot or shooting more than anyone has a right too; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forcing his way out of Milwaukee or LeBron stumbling early in his Miami years – so it’s only fair that a Hall-of-Famer like Carter gets some slack for a quarter season of poor judgement.

Carter’s picture also gets fuzzy because there is no precedent for what he did after leaving New Jersey, when after 11 years as a perennial all-star, he spent the next 11 as a supporting player (Orlando and Phoenix), then a bench player (Dallas and Memphis) and finally as a mentor (Sacramento and Atlanta).

So rather than punishing Carter for playing well past his high-flying prime, it’s probably fair to evaluate him based on his first 11 seasons.

And if we’re going to judge Carter against the best of the best, maybe we should look at his achievements outside of his injury-plagued fifth season and maybe even his sixth when O’Neill used him as a full-back running headfirst into a packed paint possession after possession.

And while we’re at it, let’s scrap those miserable 20 games in 2004-05 when the Raptors organization was in turmoil and Carter was clearly at a personal and professional crossroads.

As much as it left a bitter taste in the mouths of Raptors fans, Carter was hardly the only factor in a franchise that was spiralling at a low ebb, yet he’s the one who wears it so unfairly.

So, what are we left with? A considerable body of work — 641 games, lets call it nine seasons.

That’s Carter’s peak, when he was healthy and engaged.

He averaged 24 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists over that period. He took an expansion team to the playoffs and helped a Nets team that was past their best before date and extended their playoff window.

How does that stack up?

The only other player who produced at those levels since Carter entered the league through 2009-10 – Carter’s last year in New Jersey — was Bryant.

The only player to put up those numbers over the first nine years of their career since Carter entered the NBA is James.

So Carter’s peak has him on lists with the likes of Bryant and James – two players no one ever says didn’t achieve their potential – that’s not bad.

As for rings? Well, James and Bryant – perhaps the best player of all-time and one of the best of his era, respectively — needed Hall-of-Fame help to win theirs.

Now, a lot of players’ numbers would look different if we negated a couple of outlier seasons, but it’s one way to get at the question of whether or not Carter achieved what he should have, or left a better career on the table.

Can you ‘punish’ an athlete for being hurt? Can you blame him when he’s playing on a bad team with a bad system when outside of that there are hundreds and hundreds of games and many full seasons when he produced only the best players in the NBA ever do?

I say no.

But what if Carter was as committed to his craft as Steve Nash or as competitive as Bryant is, a common lament among Carter bashers – as if the unique character traits belonging to some of the best ever can simply be picked up from a shelf.

It makes no sense and – if anything – discredits the legendary gifts of personality that helped make their careers unique.

No one blames Nash for not being a dunker or Bryant being a barely adequate three-point shooter despite his legendary practice regimen, but that Carter lacked some of his peers’ best qualities is held against him.

What would Carter’s career have looked like had the very heart of his prime been different? Had he not been hurt, had the Raptors been able to build a winning team around him and his talents been properly utilized?

That should be the real question. Maybe more time – and let’s face it, we have it – should be spent contemplating that, rather than having his best seasons take second billing.

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